August 1, 2007

Mission Sermon

Here's the text of a sermon I am preaching this Sunday at St. John's Episcopal Church, Northampton, Massachusetts. I put a lot of thought into it and it's a good summary of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

Hosea 11:1-11
Luke 12:13-21
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Northampton, Massachusetts
5 August 2007

Let us pray.
Gracious God, grant that we might use your gifts to perform your mission of reconciliation in this broken world. Amen.

I want to begin with something I never thought I would say.

I am a missionary of the Episcopal Church.

“Missionary” is kind of a loaded word. Last fall, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” about a missionary family in the Congo and if I needed any reminder about the mixed history of mission work in Africa, it certainly gave it to me. It tells the story of a righteous and unyielding minister who refuses to learn the local culture, insists on preaching the Gospel in English, and counts his success by the number of people baptized. Then, there’s the history of missionaries to consider and their role in perpetuating, in some instances, an unjust and discriminatory colonialism. Jesus’ command to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” has wrought both much that is good but also much that is regrettable in our world. Even today, I have learned there is great disquiet about the idea of being a missionary in a world whose struggles can be traced to conflicting religious traditions. Bible-thumping and mass baptisms don’t exactly seem like a good use of my time, or, really, anyone’s time. And yet I say that I am missionary with whatever degree of pride I am allowed by the Bible and a measure of satisfaction, knowing that it is opening more doors to me than I ever could have imagined.

In February, I decided to join our national church’s Young Adult Service Corps, a program for Episcopalians in their 20s that matches willing and able Americans with Anglican dioceses and organizations overseas. It was established by General Convention in 2000 and the church pledges to find us housing and meaningful work if we will devote a year of our lives to the program and raise at least 10-thousand dollars in support.

I will be working at the Itipini Medical Clinic in Mthatha, South Africa. This is a clinic that was started by a husband-and-wife mission couple about 25 years ago and serves about 3000 people who live in a shanty-town on the site of Mthatha’s former dump. The husband is the only orthopedic surgeon in about a hundred thousand square miles and works at a local hospital. The wife is a nurse and runs the clinic and feeding program, pre-school, and after-school program that are also a part of the ministry. I will be working with her in all aspects of the ministry and can’t wait to have my eyes opened to the reality of HIV and AIDS in South Africa and the wonders God is working among our African brothers and sisters. I leave in two weeks and were it not for the small matter of seeing all of you, celebrating my birthday with my parents, and swapping out my Alaska wardrobe for a South African one, I would be there now.

I read the Bible as a whole, a complete piece of divinely-inspired literature that – while contradictory and confusing in many places – tells a couple consistent messages throughout. The message I hear most frequently is evident in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus says, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions” and warns those who “store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” We can summarize this message by paraphrasing what is often associated with a president: “Ask not what you can do for yourself; ask what you can do for God and God’s people.” God has created us, knows each one of us, and has blessed each of us with a unique set of gifts, not to enrich ourselves and store up treasures on earth but to enrich God’s fallen world and make it more like God’s perfect creation. That is no small task and not one that we accomplish in a day, a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime. It is a task we shall never see the conclusion of. But it is a task to which we must devote our lives all the same.

Since we each have different gifts, we fulfill this godly duty in different ways, in a way that fully expresses the diversity of the Body of Christ metaphor Paul uses in his epistles. But we are united by one theme: service. I define service as the act of putting the needs of others ahead of the needs of oneself. We have our own desires and wishes, of course, and we shouldn’t deny them, but our orientation needs to be primarily outwards, towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, and not inwards, enriching only ourselves.

It is this attitude that has drawn me first to Nome, Alaska where for the past two years I have worked as a news reporter at a public-service radio station there, broadcasting to Alaska Natives in Western Alaska, who live in what are frequently termed “third-world conditions.” And it is an attitude that made me search for something like YASC. But when I found out that I would be a missionary of the church if I joined YASC, I paused. Why not stay in Nome or anywhere on this continent and continue to be a contributing member of society? Why not join some other secular service program, like the Peace Corps, which I seriously considered after college before opting for grad school? Why not run as far away from the dreaded m-word as possible? What theology of mission could I arrive at that would allow me to reconcile my belief in service with my hesitation at, say, the Great Commission?

The pivot point for me, when I finally became truly comfortable saying “I am a missionary,” was two weeks of mission training in New York City in early June. With a wonderful group of other prospective missionaries, I prayed, talked, and quizzed everyone I met about these very questions up to and including the Presiding Bishop. And I learned the Episcopal Church as a whole struggles with many of these same questions but has the outlines of an answer.

When Christian fervour for overseas mission work began to reach a critical mass in the early 19th century, the focus was on the “missions of the church,” that is, the hospitals, schools, and churches around the world that various parts of the church in the rich world supported. “Mission” is rooted in the Latin word that means “sent” so it made sense to focus on these discrete outposts of people who had been sent from their homes. While this is likely where the negative view of missionaries began, we should also recognize there were as many kinds of missionaries as there are kinds of Christians and many were kind and loving types who prayfully served their new communities.

Over time, however, this focus changed and people began speaking about the “Church’s mission.” The question became, What is the church doing all over the world and how can we all participate in that one mission? The Episcopal Church, for once in its life, was ahead of the game and in 1830 declared that every member of the church was a member of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, which remains our official title today and which means all of you are missionaries as well. Everyone participates in mission.

But focusing on the “Church’s mission” forgot an important element: God. So the focus in the last few decades has been on “God’s mission” and the question that is central to this is, What is the mission of God that the church and its members can participate in? The church is not the same all over the world, which is what the “Church’s mission” idea seemed to imply, but God’s mission is.

God’s mission is, and always has been, one of reconciliation, that is, bringing people to each other and bringing people to God. At Creation, God created Adam and Eve to be in relationship with each other and in relationship with their Creator. They, of course, fell away from that relationship, setting the model we continue to follow today. The reading for Hosea this morning is a reminder of the numerous times Israel fell away from God but also the equally numerous times God called those same sinful people into closer relationship with God, in the spirit of what Hosea calls God’s “warm and tender” compassion.

But God decided the work of reconciliation needed a human face and so took human form as Jesus Christ, who reached out to everyone but particularly the down-trodden, the outcast, and the forgotten and sought to bring them into loving relationship with their world and God. In the remainder of the New Testament, God’s message spreads beyond Israel as people are sent into the world to seek to reconcile our fallen world to God’s creation.

It is a testament to the challenge of this reconciling task that our mission is the same now as it was then: to do that work of reconciliation with the power of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of Revelation and the Resurrection, that what is old can be made new again and that what is dead can be re-born. I’ll save my exegesis of the Great Commission for another time but it is this theology and this history that has made me comfortable with the idea that I am now a missionary. The point of performing this service mission in a religious context as opposed to a secular one is that it is rooted in and affirming of the faith that is the fundamental driving force behind the desire to serve.

But there is still one – at least – question left: why serve overseas and not at home where the work of reconciliation is most urgently needed in, say, the halls of Congress? There’s not a universal answer here but mine is this: the Body of Christ covers the globe and I want to know as many parts of it as possible, even if that means I sacrifice depth of understanding for breadth. Max Warren, a legendary head of the Church Missionary Society, is credited with saying, “It takes the whole world to know the whole Gospel.” I want to know as much of the world so I can know as much of the Gospel because the Holy Spirit works differently in different contexts and what I understand to be true here might be understood differently someplace else, as the ongoing struggle in the Anglican Communion demonstrates.

Let me conclude by briefly saying how I see that task of reconciliation playing out in my own context. First, a major reason we are required to raise 10-thousand dollars is that it requires us to form a community of support here, before we leave, a reconciling task of a sort. I am deeply grateful that you in this congregation – both individually and as a church community – have generously supported my mission work and put me well within reach of my goal. But your involvement doesn’t stop with writing a cheque. We were repeatedly told at training that at least half of our job is to educate people on this side of the ocean about our work on the other side. The tools of the trade of a 21st-century missionary, we were told, are a digital camera and a laptop so we can educate you about God’s mission overseas. You have a role to play in my small work of God’s reconciling mission and I intend to see that you fulfill it.

Second, I see this upcoming year as one step in my long process of “becoming,” that is, my development and realization of God’s gifts to me. It has been said that “when missionaries went abroad the first people converted were the missionaries themselves.” I deeply hope and pray this is true for me. For without that conversion, how can I move closer to God, aware of my fallen nature but in closer communion with my Creator? I think it requires a whole string of characteristics I don’t have nearly enough of – humility, patience, gratitude – and none of what I have too much of – obstinacy, stubbornness, and pride. But it is a process I look forward to because it is my personal experience of reconciliation.

As for the people of Itipini, whom I am sent to serve as best I can? I can only hope they think I am of some use and feel I have contributed something to them in exchange for all I am sure they will give me. I am a missionary and if I can in some small way bring the fallen people of this world – myself foremost among them – to better knowledge of each other and of God, I will have done my job.



First Alaskan Man said...

Well said brother. Go with God.